Early treatment for a heart attack can limit the amount of permanent heart damage.
According to a 2013 report from the American Heart Association, approximately 715,000 heart attacks occur each year in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly half of all sudden heart-related deaths occur outside the hospital. Lack of awareness about the symptoms of a heart attack may well contribute to this unfortunate statistic. Recognizing the early warning signals and seeking immediate medical care are critical to your survival if you're having a heart attack.
Recognizing a Heart Attack
Heart attack symptoms may vary greatly among individuals. The CDC's 2005 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey assessed public recognition of heart attack symptoms. While 92 percent of people surveyed recognized chest pain as a heart attack symptom, only 31 percent correctly recognized all 5 major heart attack symptoms. Delay in seeking medical care for a heart attack contributes to increased complication and death rates, especially among women, who typically experience greater symptom variability.
Chest and Related Pain
Chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom of heart attack. This might feel like tightness, pressure or a squeezing sensation that can radiate from the chest to the neck, jaw, abdomen, back or arms. Pain or discomfort from a heart attack is usually persistent and can increase in intensity as a heart attack progresses. However, chest pain or discomfort is not always present -- especially in women. A February 2012 study published in the "Journal of the American Medical Association" found that 42 percent of women hospitalized for a heart attack did not experience chest pain.
Other Chest-Related Symptoms
During a heart attack you may experience chest-related symptoms other than chest pain or discomfort. You may perceive palpitations -- the sensation that your heart is skipping beats or racing. Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath often occurs and can worsen as your symptoms progress. A perception of heartburn or indigestion can also sometimes be a symptom of a heart attack.
Other Heart Attack Signals
You may experience a group of seemingly unrelated symptoms while having a heart attack, such as nausea, vomiting, excessive sweating or cold sweats. Anxiety or a sense of impending doom, fatigue and sleepiness are also possible warning signs. Lightheadedness or fainting is sometimes an early sign of an impending heart attack. These symptoms may range in severity and occur in a variety of combinations.
When to Seek Medical Care
If you are experiencing chest pain or discomfort or any of the other symptoms associated with heart attack -- or are unsure if you may be having a heart attack -- seek immediate medical care for evaluation. People who receive treatment within an hour of symptom onset have the best survival rates, according to a 2013 report from the American Heart Association. Seeking immediate medical care is crucial for limiting heart damage and improving the likelihood of surviving a heart attack.